The Laowai Card – Chinese Treatment of Foreigners


One interesting observation that once again caught my attention over this birthday weekend with Mr. Li was the special treatment I as a foreigner tend to get in China. Most of the time this goes unmentioned, I think because I feel a bit guilty about secretly enjoying people being nice to me just because i belong to a certain race. If I am honest with myself it is not okay to be treated better simply because I am a white foreigner (yes, I am consciously choosing the word white because other skin types are not as welcomed by a substantial part of Chinese society); but to be even more honest it is hard not to enjoy it a little bit. This weekend three things happened that reminded me of this phenomenon that Mr. Li and I have dubbed “the Laowai card” as in some cases our special status is played on purpose by some of us to get out of sticky situations.

The three examples I encountered today are as follows:

Pointing out a free seat

When we were standing in the cramped metro on the way to the train station, a middle aged lady let me know that a seat a little further down was free and I could sit down (of course I didn’t manage to get to there in time before it was snatched up but that is a different story). In reaction to the kind tip from the lady Mr. Li remarked

“It is interesting how nicely people sometimes treat you in China”

and he is absolutely right. Without wanting to accuse the dear lady of anything, realistically speaking she probably would not have pointed out the seat to any of her fellow Chinese travelers. In fact, any of you who have ever witnessed the Metro Wars, which rage in China on a daily basis, know that the typical approach is get in and push and shove your way to a seat at all cost. If that means knocking over a granny on the way, so be it.

If you think my sarcastic description is inaccurate consider this: a young man got beaten up by a group of elderly people after refusing to give up his priority seat to them. Aside from the hilarity of this story, it does give you an insight to the passenger mentality on Chinese public transport. Phrases such as “better you than me” and “You snooze, you loose” are rather illustrative of the way it is out there. It is every man for himself. Therefore the fact that the dear lady attempted to get me a seat as opposed to her son, who was standing beside her, was rather touching.

Waking me for a ticket check

On the train, I almost immediately fell asleep due to the rather busy weeks that lie behind me. However, as one of the train staff walked up to check our tickets my rather sweat seat neighbor woke me up and told me in English what was going on. While I felt very appreciative of her help, I realized with a twinge of guilt she quite probably would not have woken me, had I been Chinese.

Letting me jump the queue

Finally, when I had to go to the loo on the train a man was standing slightly beside the toilets and it wasn’t until the door opened and we both made for the cubicle that I realized he was waiting to go as well. So I stopped in my tracks but he insisted I go first. This was surprising because China is infamous for its queuing habits. It is incredibly common for people to just push their way into queues, if one forms at all (usually when authorities such as security guards are involved it works rather well). Most of the time though, people who should be queuing up just lump together in front of the desk, door, or wherever it is they are waiting and it will be a case of Darwinism. The fittest being those who are best at shoving people out of the way and blocking anyone else’s attempts at being served or entering any given location.

Extra hefan helpings
So, any of you who have lived and worked in China in a more local neighborhood with few to no international dining options might have heard of the Hefan 盒饭, or the lunchbox. I think it is one of the worlds greatest inventions, a lunch set with a small portion of about 4 – 5 different Chinese dishes from meatballs 肉圆 to spicy tofu 麻婆豆腐 with a big slab of steamed rice at the ludicrously cheap price of between ¥10 – 15, or if you want the really fancy option you might run up a ¥20 tab. I love Hefan so much, that I have gotten used to having it in my diet almost every day. On weeks where we are out for fancy client lunches more than once, I find myself craving my simple, comparatively healthy Hefan.

Not too long ago, a new buffet-style Hefan place opened close to my office and so a few times I went there with my colleagues. Each time we were given the smallest possible portion, in addition to that the dishes were cold despite being stored in what are supposed to be hot plates, suggesting that this place is pulling out all the stops to try and save money. However, recently I ended up visiting the place on my own and after the lunch time rush. As soon as I marched in a friendly man who looked like the cook struck up a conversation and then vigorously instructed the girl behind the counter to “give her a bigger portion!” Yet again, while I thanked him happily, I couldn’t help but notice that every time I had gone with my Chinese friends, the treatment we had received was rather different; not unfriendly but just business-like and not very warmly.

A case of face meets patriotism

So, why do we frequently experience such preferential treatment, even on such a small level? Why do Chinese feel they need to help us or step back for us while they would not do it for their countrymen or women?

I believe the reason is a combination of face and patriotism. As a developing country, examples such as the above can be interpreted by the more critical as uncivilized behaviour, whereas when Chinese people talk about Western countries there is always an adoration for our civilized way of life. With this context, Chinese often feel the need to show their “foreign friends” (国际友人) as to which we are frequently referred, that China too is a civilized country.

Due to its communist history and strong patriotism, Chinese people furthermore always feel that their individual behaviour reflects on the country as a whole. This is why Mr. Li always gets incredibly upset when he sees Chinese people abroad displaying negative or “uncivilized” behaviour (I.e. Not queuing, spitting on the floor, not locking the door to the toilet) because he feels it will taint the image that other people will have of China. Since there is a lot of patriotism in China, how the country is perceived by the outside world is incredibly important to locals. Hence, the government will pull out all the stops for any international events on the mainland to prove to the world that they can keep up and not lose face.

Add to that the fact that sweeping generalizations are very common in China, such as all Henan people are tricksters and thieves or all Dongbei people drink masses of alcohol (and that’s just for their own country, don’t get me started on people from other countries). I would wager that in return locals feel that if they give a bad impression, a foreigner will walk away thinking all Chinese are bad people and have certain habits. So, patriotism, face and a bit of generalization and the cycle is complete.

Hence many locals are very welcoming, helpful and warm towards certain foreigners in an attempt to act as successful representatives of their country. While most of the time I simply enjoy these moments when a person does something selfless, especially since among strangers such situations are rather rare in China, I do have that nagging little voice in the back of my head that reminds why I am receiving nice treatment. Unless, of course, Mr. Li is with me to remind me of the reason with just a hint of jealousy in his voice.

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2 thoughts on “The Laowai Card – Chinese Treatment of Foreigners”

  1. You hit the nail right on the head with why such things happen in China. My husband will get irritated at people who show China in a bad light when I’m around, and I feel moved when ordinary people show extra kindness to me. While it’s not good to generalise based on the few, these examples of kindness and of crazy uncivilised-ness are the examples you go home and tell your family/friends about…

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    1. Hi Sarah – thanks so much for your words of support – it’s good to know my musings sometimes make sense 🙂 and I absolutely agree, I am the first to admit that I often find my brain slipping into generalizations automatically. Then I force myself to take a step back and look at things from a different angle – not easy, but important I think.

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